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Can Wild Animals Ever Be Owned By Anyone? Novel High Court Ruling

It may seem obvious that no one can own a wild animal. However, in a novel case of interest to property professionals – and anglers – the High Court has ruled that there are nevertheless property rights in wild fish held in captivity in a commercial fishery.

The fishery was made up of nine water-filled former gravel pits and was stocked with coarse fish for angling purposes. After the company that ran the venture hit financial difficulties, its mortgage lenders appointed receivers who sold the freehold property. A dispute then arose as to whether title to the fish stocks had passed to the purchaser or whether they remained the property of the company.

In ruling on the matter, the Court noted that there was no previous authority on the status of fish stocks contained within a commercial fishery. Although some of the large, specimen fish had been given nicknames by the company's staff, they remained wild and could not be viewed as chattels.

The Court, however, found that the company had acquired qualified property rights in the fish through its industry, diligence and hard work in managing the fishery. They had been artificially introduced to the ponds by the company and were under its control, having been separated from their natural environment.

Giving the example of a rabbit kept in a hutch on a property, the Court noted that it could not be said that title to the rabbit had passed automatically on a transfer of the land itself. In the circumstances, the Court found that the purchaser had wrongfully interfered with the company's possession of the fish and was thus strictly liable for common law conversion.

The amount of damages payable to the company has yet to be assessed. Its further claim in respect of certain solar panels failed on the basis that they were fixtures that were an integral part of the land and had thus passed to the purchaser on the property's acquisition.

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